Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

St. Louis' fairytale start, Nancy-ball arrives in Columbus & more from Matchday 2

Doyle 3.5.23 column

Two weeks into season No. 28 and there are four teams on six points.

  • Two of them missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs last year.
  • One made the playoffs, got smoked, and didn’t bring back their two best players.
  • One’s an expansion team.

People who bet on MLS are the bravest fools in the world.

Let’s start with that expansion team:

Non-Stop Home

The party in St. Louis is not going to stop for a while, I imagine. Not when they’ve taken six points from two games – about 80% of teams that do that make the playoffs – and not when they’ve become the first team in MLS history to score three or more goals in their first two outings.

It’s not going to stop when you’ve got an entire stadium filled with people who stood and chanted and cheered for the full 90 (one of the best crowds I’ve seen in this sport), and not when your DP center forward is scoring goals, nor when your DP central midfielder is running games, nor when the cadre of young guys have looked so good, nor when the cadre of veterans have looked so comfortable and bought in, and definitely not when every opponent they face comes bearing gifts.

Check all those boxes and the party will only continue, and will only grow. And so that’s how it went on an emotional Saturday night (that surely spilled over into Sunday morning) in the first home game in St. Louis CITY SC history, a come-from-behind 3-1 win over visiting Charlotte.

It was a _scene_.

“I think today was always going to be – the result would be secondary, right?” head coach Bradley Carnell said in the postgame press conference. “We [were] fighting with the emotions of 70 years of history and bringing the MLS to St. Louis.”

They fought it well. MLS took a long time to get to the Gateway City, the original Capital of American Soccer, and it will not all be wine and roses from here on out. But it has been so far, and that’s because Carnell’s side has met the moment, from both an emotional and tactical perspective, in two straight outings.

“We go a goal down, we went right back in the game and we force a goal, and then we start getting a grip and I thought had we had a fantastic second half performance,” Carnell said. “So very proud of the boys and just love to now be part of the celebrations in St. Louis.”

Part of the celebration right now is how, in both last week’s win at Austin and this weekend’s win over Charlotte – two teams that generally like to control tempo – CITY were able to Energy Drink Soccer-ize the proceedings, robbing their opponents of the ability to set the terms of the encounter.

The other part of the celebration among a certain subset of fans is that St. Louis haven’t been only that. They are fast and direct, but not directionless. They play more soccer and less bumper cars than I think some had expected (I’ll raise my hand here).

It was there in the build-up to what eventually became the game-winning goal:

That’s just good, decisive soccer.

Charlotte had their moments as well and were arguably hard done to not get a penalty of their own that could’ve made it 2-0 midway through the first half. I also think you could make the case that they just lost their cool and couldn’t manage their own emotions as well as St. Louis did – and thus gifted all three goals (own-goal, penalty and a picked-off back-pass that was eerily similar to last week’s gaffe) to the hosts.

It should be a useful learning experience. The version of this team that was so good down the stretch last year is in there somewhere. It just, for a variety of reasons, hasn’t quite come out yet.

Clock’s ticking.

When it Was Now

Merry Crewsmas!

Columbus had their first opening day home sellout since 1999 and the fans were treated to a pretty thorough if not quite dominant two-way performance in what became a 2-0 win over visiting D.C. United. If you want the big, overarching takeaway from a Massive Canary point of view, it’s this: Lucas Zelarayán and Cucho Hernández got a ton of touches in and around the box – Zelarayán scored both goals – and that’s obviously a good indication that Wilfried Nancy’s system is putting its match-winners into spots where they can win matches.

And that, obviously, is the thing here. Nancy deserves plenty of praise for his ability to develop young players (an overpowered skill in this league where you’re never working with finished products), and that’s a big part of why the Crew went out and got him this winter.

But they also got him because of his ability to put together a game model that would get the most out of attacking stars. Djordje Mihailovic was Best XI-caliber last year when healthy, and Romell Quioto had the best season of his life. What would happen with Zelarayán and Cucho?

We’re getting some good early data on that. Step one has been moving Zelarayán up into more of a shadow striker role in Nancy’s 3-4-2-1 rather than playing him as more of a midfielder, where his propensity for turnovers had a way of killing the team the past couple of years. That resulted in sequences like this one, where Zelarayán drops off the front line not to orchestrate the attack, but more as a facilitator who’d then dive into the box after the game had been opened up:

"With our people,” Zelarayán said afterward, “we want to run and score.”

That’s the positive data. The somewhat negative is that this team struggled in exerting control through central midfield through methodical possession, which was CF Montréal’s hallmark the past two seasons. That group was very good at killing the game with the ball; this group, on Saturday, weren’t able to find that kind of patience or precision. Thus they never much threatened to extend the lead and spent the final 10 minutes of the game scrambling away one box entry after another from the guests.

"Yes, we won, but I would have preferred to have better control of the game at certain moments," Nancy said in the postgame presser. "This is something that we have to be a little bit better. The emotional control for me is really important. Today, we rushed the play when it was the moment to keep, to manipulate a little bit more the opposition, to disjoint a bit the line.

"This is something that we need to be better [at]. This is not easy because this is all about the momentum. This is complex, but this is something that I like."

I’m not sure how quickly that will come to this Crew team, or if it will with their current personnel (I can not emphasize enough how key Victor Wanyama was in Montréal). Yet it was still a good and promising win not just for Zelarayán’s embrace of his adjusted role, but also when you factor in growing comfort along the backline, Cucho’s defensive work, and the fact that Alexandru Matan’s now played more good soccer for the Crew in the past two weeks than he’d managed in the past two years.

D.C. weren’t bad, by the way, and Wayne Rooney’s 4-4-2 isn’t nerfing Mateusz Klich the way I thought it might (Russell Canouse playing like it’s 2018 again is a part of that). They do need a little more from those wide midfielders – I think Ted Ku-DiPietro will start next week, right? – and a lot more from the second striker under Christian Benteke.

That should be Taxi Fountas when he gets back, but we’ll see.

A few more things to ponder…

12. The champs returned to action in the first game of the weekend and, for 60 effective (if sloppy) minutes, looked like they might just do the double again. LAFC, using Carlos Vela as a false 9 though with a lot of swapping between him and Mahala Opoku, undressed the Timbers for an hour, murdered them on set pieces and staked themselves to an ultimately insurmountable 3-0 lead.

I call it “ultimately insurmountable” because the Timbers, who sparked to life over the final 25 minutes (I’ll again ask for Nathan Fogaça to be in the XI from the start), did real work trying to surmount it. They pulled two back and damn near came away with a point before the final whistle blew at 3-2.

Here’s Eryk Williamson with our Pass of the Week:

One note for future LAFC opponents: Giorgio Chiellini’s distribution is a weapon. If you let him pick his head up and pick his passes – if you treat him the same way you treat Jesús Murillo or Aaron Long – you’re going to be in a ton of trouble.

11. Nashville and the Red Bulls broke out the ax handles and machetes for a less-than-aesthetically pleasing 90-minute 0-0 in Harrison. It’s a good point for the ‘Yotes, but I can’t in good conscience recommend anyone go back and watch that game.

10. I feel the same way about Cincy’s scoreless draw against Orlando’s B Team, as Oscar Pareja rotated his squad ahead of Tuesday night’s CCL clash vs. mighty Tigres.

Pareja switched up his side’s formation, going with a 3-4-2-1 to juuuust about mirror Cincy’s default look and ugly it up. While I’m not sure it worked – Cincy had a number of decent-to-good chances but just weren’t sharp enough to beat Pedro Gallese – it got Orlando the point without overtaxing any of the most crucial starters.

One note from Cincy’s perspective: while Brenner didn’t look great, per se, he did look active and engaged, and like he’s dealt with whatever disappointment he suffered from the failed move to Nottingham Forest. I suspect he’ll be fine.

Part of being active and engaged was using him as one of the keys to controlling the midfield. Cincy head coach Pat Noonan is becoming one of my favorite quotes in the league for how open he is and how in-depth he’ll go about both what he saw and what he was trying to do from a tactical perspective.

It’s a long quote, but worth reading.

"One of the areas we looked to focus on was taking away their numbers in the middle of the field. You know, in our front three, we were asking them to be a little bit more narrow, so it wasn't so easy for them to find some central passes. I think in the first half, \[Mauricio\] Pereyra got on the ball a few too many times where he was able to advance forward. So just the relationship there with you know, Brenner and Obi \[Nwobodo\] when he was releasing we could have done a little better with but we figured that if it was going to be one high and if the wingers weren't overly aggressive going to our outside center backs then we could be patient with the ball rotation,” Noonan explained in the postgame presser.

“And you factor in the humidity, we needed to be better with the ball than we were in our opener. I think we saw that tonight which allowed us to be able to have longer stretches of possession and then find open players to move the ball and move the ball forward. So you know, I was pleased with that aspect of our game tonight."

What Noonan saw shows up in the numbers. As per TruMedia via StatsPerform, Cincy averaged nine passes per sequence this week, nearly double the 4.9 they posted last week vs. Houston.

9. Atlanta did a much better job of clustering their shots in the right places, generating a ton in the “second six” – the area between the six-yard box and the penalty marker – against Toronto on Saturday than they did last week, or for much of the past two years. They’re the ones going left to right on this graphic:

atlanta shots v toronto

These are better shots than the ones that won them the game last week, so naturally, the Five Stripes came away with only a point against a TFC side that conceded nearly 70% possession and defended deep as hell in what eventually became a 1-1 draw.

Ball progression seems to be the foundational stat of basically every all-in-one team quality metric, and Atlanta have some S-Tier ball progressors. Luiz Araújo, for example, progresses the ball via the dribble better than just about anyone in MLS. Then he blasts it into the stands, and has done so for 18 months now.

That limits the value of his ball progression because he doesn't turn it into anything useful for Atlanta. But the models see "well, they get it into good spots, then settle for bad shots. They will eventually start turning those into good shots."

I have grown tired of waiting for them to do that. But if you’re operating under the assumption that Atlanta will eventually turn all their ball progression into good shots, I think this game was a positive data point.

TFC, meanwhile, have already descended into something of an injury crisis, as last week they lost Lorenzo Insigne to a muscle injury and this week they lost Adama Diomande and his primary backup, Ayo Akinola, to hamstring tightness. That’s two of their starting front three (Bob Bradley said he hopes Insigne can play next week, for what it’s worth), as well as the top frontline sub.

The one guy who’s still standing, though… Federico Bernardeschi might very well be the best player in the league, even playing out of position as a second forward. He’s checking every possible box you want from a DP.

8. Phil Neville was very clear about his intentions this year, saying in the postgame interview on Season Pass that he sees his Inter Miami side as a top-four team in the East, and that they’d oriented towards a two-game blitz out of the gate against the top two teams in the East last year. That was CF Montréal last week and, this week, the Philadelphia Union.

Two games, four goals scored, none allowed. Six points and job done.

Neither win was fluky – I certainly think that Andre Blake could’ve done better on Corentin Jean’s opener, but it was a fair goal based upon the balance of play at that point – though the Herons haven’t been quite so commanding as the scorelines suggest. There is plenty to work on in terms of using the ball to kill games off, and in terms of limiting opposing box entries (Philly didn’t score, but they got their looks).

And for what it’s worth, I do think that Neville is going to have to strongly consider sticking with the sort of lopsided 4-2-3-1 they’ve been playing even when Leo Campana comes back.

The Union have habitually bounced back from bad performances under Jim Curtin. We’ll see what happens on Tuesday in San Salvador as they open their CCL campaign.

7. The Revs hammered Houston 3-0 in Foxborough. I’m going to turn it over to my Partner in Soccer, Calen Carr, who did color commentary on this one before sampling the bright lights and nightlife of Foxborough:

Revs coach Bruce Arena\] went to a 4-4-2 diamond, and bringing in [Latif Blessing as a shuttler\] took out [Houston’s strength in midfield immediately. They basically turned the game into who has better wide play, and \[Brandon\] Bye and \[DeJuan\] Jones (and Dylan Borrero as he drifted wide more as the game went on) always had the advantage vs. Houston’s fullbacks.

I like Houston’s midfield, but they have no plan B right now when teams focus on that.

Also, Carles Gil was great and had way too much time and space.

Here’s what that looks like:

Notice Borrero, who’s nominally a second forward in this set-up, scoring what is essentially a winger’s goal. His ability to shift between playing in the pocket under the 9 to working off the shoulder of the weak-side fullback is going to be key to making this approach work.

On that note: for this week, anyway, this wasn’t the wide diamond of 2021 (that one got its wide attacking overloads from the shuttlers) but a much narrower version as Latif and, to a lesser extent, Noel Buck stayed tight to Matt Polster at d-mid. So the Revs looked much more like the diamond that great RSL side played from 2008-13, or, dare I say, like Bruce’s OG diamond dynasty with D.C. United.

It’s way too early to dive super deep into this yet, but let’s keep an eye on it.

6. Austin got a deserved three points thanks to a lightning transition move finished by Maxi Urruti’s 88th-minute winner in the 1-0 over visiting Montréal. The Verde & Black were the better team throughout, and while I think there’s some justifiable concern over Emiliano Rigoni, who couldn’t manage to put two good, early chances on frame, I’m going with the “at least he was in position to miss good chances in the first place!” glass-half-full view. It pairs well with “Josh Wolff made some good subs that got his team three points.”

As for why he needed to make those subs…

driussi passes to gyasi

That’s the map of the completed passes of their star No. 10, Sebastián Driussi, to their new No. 9, Gyasi Zardes. These guys very much aren’t on the same page.

The main thing to understand here is that Driussi is a No. 10 in the old Italian tradition (Roberto Baggio, Francesco Totti, etc) rather than in the string-pulling South American tradition. What I mean by this is that, in the final third, he sort of naturally wants to occupy the same spots that the No. 9 usually does, and scores a lot of his goals off of 9-ish box movement and one-touch finishing.

That, of course, is the same way Gyasi scores his goals. So their chemistry is a work in progress.

Everything about Montréal, meanwhile, is a work in progress. They’ve lost so much talent from last year for one, and for two, the switch from Nancy’s controlled possession play to Hernan Losada’s Maximum Overdrive has been jarring. They are getting opened up at the exact wrong moments.

5. Sporting KC went to Colorado and came away with a point via a scoreless draw, which isn’t a terrible road result. But through two games Willy Agada hasn’t treated us to much of the dynamic, impossibly fast, Haaland-esque off-ball work that defined this team down the stretch last year.

As per MLS Next Gen stats he was only the sixth-fastest Sporting player in last week’s loss in Portland, and on Saturday he was only the fifth-fastest. Max top speed isn’t everything – in many contexts it’s not much at all – but what was so great about Willy last year was how he weaponized his elite top speed any time a center back was foolish enough to turn his head.

We need to see him open the throttle every now and again in order to put the fear of God into opposing backlines. It hasn’t happened yet in 2023.

Nothing much has happened for Colorado, either, though they’ll be happy with the performance from William Yarbrough in goal. And young Darren Yapi has been promising, if not yet productive in front of goal.

I loved this quote from Sporting CM Erik Thommy on playing at altitude, by the way: “The air was missing.”

Anyone who spends all their time at sea level and then goes for a jog in Denver for the first time knows that feeling.

4. This is what FC Dallas fans should want from their attack:

One of the defining traits of los Toros Tejanos last season was that they’d let scrambled opponents off the hook. Too often they’d snap into their default, scripted pattern play instead of pushing tempo and hitting gaps. In order to evolve from a good team to a great team they need to do a better job, teamwide, of recognizing moments to push numbers forward, especially when teams are asking for it.

And whew boy were the Galaxy asking for it repeatedly in the second half on Saturday night, which led to the 3-1 final in Frisco. I’m not going to mash the panic button or anything, but this game was a pretty great example of why Gs fans were right to be worried about their team’s transition defense and wing play heading into the season.

3. NYCFC and Chicago both looked like teams still under construction in their 1-1 draw at Soldier Field. The Pigeons will be happier for that result because a road point is, by definition, good, and also because by the end of the 90 minutes they were closer to complete. That’s thanks to the returns of James Sands (started and went 73 minutes) and Santi Rodríguez (came off the bench for the final quarter-hour).

Those two guys along with Keaton Parks, fully fit from the start, give NYCFC maybe the best midfield in the league.

Those two guys, Parks and a new No. 9? I’m not precisely betting upon it, but it’s worth noting that for the second straight week Nick Cushing moved Talles Magno to the left wing in the second half, inserting Thiago Andrade up top. I will take this as a promising sign that CFG’s front office is thinking about scrapping the Talles experiment and getting a real center forward on board.

The Fire fought back for a well-earned point but finished the game in worse shape than they started it – less complete – as they lost both Federico Navarro (14th minute) and then Jairo Torres (first-half stoppage) to injury.

Chicago do have some decent depth in those spots, but the team that’s missed the playoffs 11 times in 13 years is already getting some bad breaks, and that does not feel good even if they were able to rally back for the result.

2. It does feel real good to be a Sounder right now (Producer Anders confirmed) as, for the second straight week, they looked like the best team in the league. This time the scoreline wasn’t quite so lopsided as they only managed a 2-0 win over visiting RSL, but save for one brief flurry at the start of the second half, there was never a moment in which this game felt anything but Rave Green.

“That was some of the best soccer that the Seattle Sounders have played in a very long time,” head coach Brian Schmetzer said afterward. “It reminded me a little bit of some of the stuff that [Obafemi Martins] and Clint [Dempsey] used to do. Some of that stuff that you would see and it was entertaining.”

They’ll take their show on the road next week, visiting a very good Cincy side (I picked Cincy to top the East and Seattle to top the West, for what it’s worth). It’ll obviously be very interesting to see if they can bring this type of play with them.

RSL looked overwhelmed, and not just from a pure talent level. Tactically speaking they needed to do a better job of keeping Seattle pinned against the sideline when they had them there, but the Sounders were repeatedly able to play out and stretch RSL’s midfield and backline horizontally even when they weren’t stretched vertically.

Once the Sounders manage that, it’s game over.

1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to a very happy Carlos Akapo after finishing off this lovely sequence in San Jose’s come-from-behind 2-1 win over visiting Vancouver:

The Quakes controlled possession (59.7%), and controlled where on the field the game was played (they held the ball in the middle third a TON, which drew Vancouver’s deep line upfield and gave Cade Cowell and Cristian Espinoza space to run in behind) and at what tempo, generated tons of chances (20 shots, 16 of which were from inside the box) and made a good adjustment in dropping Jackson Yueill deeper once Vancouver showed they were releasing Andrés Cubas to press Carlos Gruezo in build-outs.

Luchi Gonzalez was pleased in the postgame presser even as he acknowledged this one got off to a slightly rocky start following last weekend’s very rocky finish.

Vanni Sartini was much less well-pleased, as for the second straight week his team came out and gave 30 good minutes then kind of fell apart. I think he’s got to figure out how to keep either Julian Gressel or Pedro Vite on the field at all times (ideally both for most of the time) because those are the only guys out there who really break lines and move the chains.